State Pushes Back on Judge's Plan to Expand PG&E Shutoffs

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The state’s top emergency official joined state utility regulators to push back against a judge’s proposed order to compel the utility to account for the density of trees at risk of falling onto power lines in deciding when and where to shut off power to avoid wildfires.

Judge William Alsup will decide next month whether to impose a series of new restrictions on PG&E’s criminal probation in light of the Zogg fire last October in Shasta county, which left four dead and has been blamed on a leaning pine tree that fell onto a power line in high winds.

PG&E has said it believes the leaning tree may have been slated for removal, but was not cut down and remained looming over the live line at the time of the disaster. Citing favorable conditions, PG&E opted not to shut the line down.

The federal judge has lashed out repeatedly against the utility for its role in that fire, calling it a “terror” on the people of the state. One of the new conditions he has proposed is that the utility account for not just the danger from high winds, but tally up the number of trees that could fall on power lines and use that census to guide its shutoff priorities.

“He’s got the ability to take a step back and take step back and look at what seems logical and what doesn’t seem logical,” said Steven Weissman, a former regulator with the state Public Utilities Commission about the judge’s unique role in preventing further wildfires.

“I think it makes sense to want to understand how dense the trees are and how many different trees could be causing problems for you.”

Although the utility has not objected to the judge’s proposed order and appears willing to go along, both the head of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and attorneys for the Public Utilities Commission wrote separate objection letters lodged with the court on Friday.

Both agencies argue that while well intentioned, expanding shutoffs could be counterproductive, stressing that experience has shown they have the potential to hinder first responders, impact medically dependent people and cripple cellular service needed for emergency evacuations.

“Prolonged power outages could pose significant challenges and could have dire consequences,” the OES director Mark Ghirlarducci wrote in his letter to Alsup, which pointed to the impact of last year’s shutoffs that left already pandemic house-bound elderly residents to swelter or shiver in extreme temperatures.

The judge’s proposal, Ghirlarducci argued, “may require PG&E to drastically expand the scope and duration” of power shutoffs – and PG&E could use shutoffs as a crutch instead of making progress to reducing long-term fire danger.

In fact, PG&E recently acknowledged that due to extreme weather conditions it will rely on shutoffs for the foreseeable future.

In their separate letter filed with the court, CPUC attorneys stress that an order that the utility consider the extent of vulnerable trees “may unduly broaden” shutoffs “beyond the scope that has been vetted by safety experts and parties in ongoing CPUC proceedings.”

Weissman says having to balance all risks and threats won’t be easy, and the judge’s intervention is just the start of the challenge from the continuing threat of wildfires. “We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “It’s a very precarious situation and, unfortunately, I think it’s destined to remain that way for an number of years.”

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